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Justice Clarence Thomas with Law School students.

Oath and Conscience, Clarence Thomas's Stand

"We are in an environment of splendid isolation at the Supreme Court and we're obligated to give an honest opinion. In the end you're left alone with your oath and your conscience."

Humble submission to duty was United States Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas's main theme in his only public remarks as the John A. Ewald Visiting Professor at the Law School September 9 and 10.

Following brief remarks about life on the nation's highest Court, Justice Thomas took questions from a packed house of students at Caplin Auditorium. Earlier in the day he attended Professor Robert O'Neil's Constitutional Law II: Speech and Press class and lunched with leaders of student organizations. His visit also included discussions with Professor Caleb Nelson's Federal Courts class, Visiting Professor Pamela Karlan's Regulation of the Political Process class, and a dinner with the Federalist Society.

Before he took questions Thomas praised the Court for the warm, personal decency of the relationships between the justices, which transcend their differences in reaching decisions.

"The one thing I would designate as the hallmark of my years on the Court would have to be the justices," he said. "They have no axes to grind. They are trying to make the best decisions they can.

"You debate issues with eight other people for a decade and see how long you can stay friends with them. I think some of the steam should have been taken out of some things written for the public, but after all these years and issues the personal relationships between the justices are still there."

Nonetheless, differences in perspective persist. "In almost a decade sitting between Justice Ginsburg and Justice Souter, I don't think I have been influenced by them and I think they would say I have not contaminated them."

"I know of no arrogance on the Court. But I tell you I'm Pollyanna-ish about the Supreme Court. I'm an apologist for it. I have nothing but good things to say about the justices."

Thomas was modest about his role and humble in the face of his responsibility. "It's an honor to be there that you have to live up to every day," he said. "Justice [Lewis] Powell once said to me, 'if you ever think you belong there and that you've got it figured out, it's time for you to go.'"

"I don't have a plan or a mission or a philosophy to work out. Count me out on that score. My legacy-which is something I don't think about-will be that I called them as I see them."

Thomas enjoyed his visit to the Law School. "I've been to a number of schools," he said, "and what I like about here is that people talk and disagree but don't get dug in. You do it in a way that's constructive. I'm enormously impressed with this institution and I've had a number of fabulous clerks from the Law School. This is still the University."

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